Oh Margaret Atwood. I wish I could quit you. Seriously. Your books are so damn disturbing. I think Handmaid’s Tale broke my wee brain as a preteen and I have distrusted male authority and religion ever since. This book deals with romantic relationships, female friendships, the other woman and the perceptions of evil. However, unlike many of Atwood’s books, it is not a work of science fiction.
Three friends, who met in college gather monthly in mid 90s, maybe early 2000s Toronto for monthly luncheons. They are in their late 40s and have teenage children, settled lives and silent marriages. They are comfortable. Because Zenia is dead.
But then into their little café walks Zenia. She basically buzzes through, blows their lives apart by her mere presence and drifts out again.
The book then divides into the tale of the three women at the table and the havoc that Zenia has caused in their lives. Each woman has undergone normal, if a little sad, levels of childhood trauma that Zenia then exploits when they are vulnerable as adults.
This book is about female friendship. The women meet in college but are such different personalities that they might not have developed strong relationships. Except that the manipulative monster that is Zenia betrays them all in similar ways. It’s the aftermath of Zenia’s attempts to destroy each woman that provides the others the opportunity to be truly great friends. After each run-in with Zenia the women bring their unique gifts together to rebuild the broken one into a stronger better person. In an obvious way, Zenia is the best thing that ever happens to each of them.
Zenia is also the worst. I love a good villain. Especially one with unclear motivations. We never hear what is really going on with Zenia. She tells a lot of stories, and the truth never comes out. Is she a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp? Maybe. Was she a refugee, a victim of child rape, a penniless orphan or none of the above? It doesn’t matter. She uses the story that will get the women to trust her and then she takes them for all they are worth. And she does it over and over and over.
But when she blows up the life of one of these women, she is doing them a favor? Tony loves West. But she is mired in such low self-esteem that she can’t bring herself to pursue him. Until Zenia rips out his heart and leaves him a shattered mess. She “gives” West to Tony but then takes him back. It takes a third run-in with Zenia for Tony to really confront how she feels about West and their lives together.
Charis is the construct of a scared little girl who wants to bury her anger. She changes her name from Karen and becomes a peace child. A peace child who is easily manipulated. Zenia crushes her but also removes some toxic elements from her life. Charis is free to be Charis because Zenia clears house.
And Roz. God I love Roz. She is so badass. Zenia takes the most from Roz, but at the end of the day Roz might have actually won?
The great thing about this book is that after you read it, you might not agree with my conclusions. Except that Roz is amazing. Disagree with me on that one and you are dead to me. Dead. To. Me.